MOOCs – More Evolution Than Revolution

This blogpost comes to us courtesy of Dr. Keith Devlin, Executive Director of the H-STAR Institute at Stanford University. Keith Devlin blogs regularly about MOOCs at A different and much longer version of this article first appeared in the Huffington Post

The hype-fueled expectations of a MOOC-led, Napster-like revolution in higher education quickly gave way to a more realistic assessment of the (obstacle-strewn) road ahead with the recent very public failures of two high profile initiatives in California.

The first casualty was the partnership between San Jose State University and for-profit MOOC provider Udacity, initiated last January in a blaze of publicity by Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun and California governor Jerry Brown. The public-private agreement called for Udacity to support three remedial classes developed and run by professors at San Jose State.

The potential prize was big: courses offered for a fraction of the normal classroom cost. But when the results came in, the euphoria quickly evaporated. The passing rates were 29%, 44% and 51%, respectively, much lower than hoped for. As a result, the university and Udacity have announced that no further such courses would be offered until they had analyzed what went wrong.

The second train-wreck was the announcement that Senate Bill 520, a controversial piece of legislation seeking to incorporate for-credit, partially-outsourced online education in all three of the state’s higher education institutions – the California Community Colleges, California State University, and the University of California – has now been put on hold until at least 2014.

Though SB520 was not focused on MOOCs per se, the MOOC explosion had spurred legislators to take a pro-active role to overcome what they felt was too slow a pace by the state’s three higher education systems in embracing new delivery technologies to reduce the costs to students.

As with the SJSU-Udacity project, however, it would be unwise to view the possible-death of SB520 as anything more than the end of Phase 1 of what will be an ongoing process. (In Silicon Valley, where I live and work, “failure” is our stock-in-trade; if you are not failing most of the time, you are not being bold enough.)

The idea behind SB520 was to tie funds ($16.9M for CCC, $10M for CSU, $10M for UC) to “increas[ing] the number of courses available to matriculated undergraduates through the use of technology, specifically those courses that have the highest demand, fill quickly, and are prerequisites for many different degrees.”

No one, to my knowledge, thinks that goal is anything but laudable. Governor Brown killed (or at least stunned) the bill – but not the goal – by imposing a line-item veto on his own earmarks. Significantly, however, he did not take away the funds. Rather, he left it to the three systems to decide how to use the money in order to assist matriculated students complete degrees at a lower cost. And technology will play a major role in those initiatives.

What both episodes tell us is that, while there may be (I would say there almost certainly are) ways we can use technology to reduce the student costs – and perhaps the waiting lines to get into courses – that currently bedevil higher education, last year’s naïve predictions of an imminent revolution are being replaced by a more sane attitude.

Teaching and learning are complex processes that require considerable expertise to understand well. In particular, education has a significant feature unfamiliar to most legislators and business leaders, who tend to view it as a process that takes a raw material – incoming students – and produces graduates who emerge at the other end with knowledge and skills that society finds of value. (Those outcomes need not be employment skills – their value is to society, and that can manifest in many different ways.)

But the production-line analogy has a major limitation. If a manufacturer finds the raw materials are inferior, she or he looks for other suppliers (or else uses the threat thereof to force the suppliers to up their game). In education, however, you have to work with the supply you get – and still produce a quality output. Indeed, that is the whole point of education. Some parts of education require interaction with a trained expert over extended periods of time, and hence are not scalable. But those parts are just that: parts.

Of course, calling something a failure depends on what the goals are. If you view MOOCs as a way to make quality higher education available to the entire world, for free, then they are already a huge success. That goal is what initially motivated all the MOOC pioneers, myself included. It was when people started looking at using them to break the hitherto unstoppable growth cycle in the cost of higher education that difficulties arose.

My own best prediction – and we are all having to base our judgments and decisions on less than two years of experience with the medium – is that MOOCs are likely to be part – but not all – of the answer, and the biggest impact will come from taking advantage of the underlying technologies on which MOOCs are built.

In adopting this perspective, I am very much in line with my own university, Stanford, as can be seen in this short video summarizing the current (significant) efforts the university is making in the development, use, and study of educational technologies.

What we are doing at Stanford is stripping higher education down to its smallest components and seeing how technology can be used to enhance or make more efficient each part, before reassembling them into what may be (and I think will be) a new higher education landscape.

Progress is likely to be slow and punctuated by many false starts, with advances for the most part coming in small increments. Just like most other research, in fact.

There will, I am sure, be disruption in higher education. Flipped classrooms are already being adopted and will eventually dominate, at least for basic courses. I think that chances are very high that we will see a partial separation of education from accreditation, with students assembling their education from a number of providers, the way they currently put together their degree by choosing different modules and courses at their college or university. Separate entities like Degreed will assemble and certify the students portfolio. Along the way, some colleges and universities will go out of business, and others (having different structures) are already starting to spring into existence.

But, unlike the rapid and dramatic way technology upturned the music industry and journalism, I think that change will more evolution than revolution.

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